In 1851, a group of Redemptorist priests (among them the relatively recently ordained Isaac Hecker, the future founder of the Paullist Fathers) sailed from Europe to the U.S. to start and English-speaking Redemptorist mission band – a group that would include three other American Redemptorists, Clarence Walworth, Augustine Hewit, and Francis Baker – the three of them, like Hecker himself, all converts to Catholicism.
On January 17, shortly before beginning the Atlantic voyage back to his home, Hecker wrote to his mother from London: “Oh! may Almighty God prosper our voyage, and may His sweet and blessed mother be our guide and protector on the stormy sea. And may my arrival in America be for the good of many souls who are still wandering out of the one flock and away from the one shepherd!”
Delayed by bad weather, Hecker and his companions made a novena to St. Joseph in the hope of arriving in New York by March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. “St. Joseph will have to do his very prettiest to get us in,” the Captain retorted. Then, on March 16, he said “St. Joseph can’t do it – give it up.” But the priests persevered in their prayers. That night the wind changed, and the ship began to speed – at 14 m.p.h.! Finally, after 52 days at sea, the ship arrived in New York - on March 19, and the Redemptorists were soon ready to commence the first English-language parish mission in the U.S., at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan. (The story of the voyage is told by Walter Elliott in chapter 23 of his 1891The Life of Father Hecker).
In his preaching and writing, Isaac Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted images and models of holiness which he believed resonated well within the new context created by what he saw happening in the modern world. An excellent example of this is found in one of Hecker’s most famous and often quoted sermons, The Saint of Our Day (preached at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York on this date, the feast of St. Joseph, in 1863). Just as every secular age has its own characteristics, expressed in its art, science, and politics, likewise in the Church, Hecker argued, “There is something about the sanctity of each age peculiar to itself.” Speaking of his own time, Hecker claimed, “Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced.” The 19th century, of course, claimed “to be marked by unprecedented diffusion of intelligence and liberty.” Hence, Hecker’s specific understanding of what was characteristically required by sanctity in a modern and free society: “The more a civilization solicits the exercise of man’s intelligence, and enlarges the field for the action of his free-will, the broader will be the basis that it offers for sanctity. Ignorance and weakness are the negation of life; they are either sinful or the consequences of sin, and to remedy these common evils is the aim of the Christian religion. Enlightened intelligence and true liberty of the will are essential conditions of all moral actions, and the measure of their merit. …The ideal of Catholicity is the union of religion with intelligence and liberty in all their completeness. Man renders to God that perfect worship when he offers the homage of his entire intelligence and liberty.“
Of St. Joseph, Isaac Hecker, said: “His virtue was like the light, colorless because it was complete. He was an all-sided man. He combined in himself the sanctities of different and variously separated states and conditions. … He was in the world and found God where he was. He sanctified his work by carrying God with him into the workshop. … He attained in society and human relationships a degree of perfection not surpassed, if equaled, by the martyr’s death, the contemplative of the solitude, the cloistered monk, or the missionary hero.”
How fitting that 150 years later, as the Church focuses her energies on a new evangelization, a new Pope – the first from the New World, the first non-European in over 1000 years, and the first member of the great modern missionary Jesuit order - formally inaugurates his ministry as Successor of St. Peter on this feast of St. Joseph!